Every boy goes through a ninja phase. It arrives at the same time, and with the same fervor, as the pony phase girls experience. Around the age of seven, every American boy will turn on a TV or flip open a comic book and discover some black-clad assassin slipping silently through the night. He will have a weapon for every possible threat, a gymnastic spin for every danger, a single badass hiss for every fool who dares to cross him.
Many girls never outgrow the pony phase. They train hard at the local barn, they buy horses, they spend their lives happily mucking stalls and intimidating huge beasts into doing their bidding, which usually involves jumping over fences or prancing around a ring. So, too, many boys never manage to outgrow the ninja phase. But boys, no matter how hard we train, no matter how hard we try, can never be ninjas.
This, I think, is the real reason why women outlive men. Ponies aren’t that hard to find. But for men, the crushing realization that we will never be ninjas wears us down over the years, until we our spirits break and we pass as soft and quiet as a ninja in the night.
Obviously, I’ve never really outgrown the ninja phase. Years of religiously watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe, not to mention reading Wolverine and Batman comics, instilled in my a deep desire to become a shinobi-no-hito. Mostly I think it was because I was such a spazzy little dork and ninjas are the epitome of cool: silent, confident, deadly, ready for anything. You don’t mess with a ninja, son. A ninja messes with you and you won’t even know it until it’s too late. Ninjas were everything I wasn’t. If I was a ninja, I could beat up the school bullies and win the heart of my one true love, Gwendolyn (whose last name I don’t remember… ah, first love). But I wasn’t a ninja. Not yet.
I took karate, hoping it would lead me down the path to ninjahood. It didn’t. I read every book on ninjas I could find, praying they’d teach me ninjitsu. They didn’t. I begged my parents to buy me a katana and some shuriken. They (wisely) didn’t. None of this dissuaded me. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that someday I’d move to a ninja village in japan and be inducted into the secret arts of ninjitsu.
My friends all knew of my dreams. At first, they were supportive. “Ninja” seemed like a perfectly reasonable career path among a group whose professional aspirations all involved dinosaurs, space, or dinosaurs in space. But long before I did, my peers realized accounting, middle management, and plumbing were far more feasible careers than astropaleontology.
My ninja dreams came to an overdue end in a middle school locker room. I overheard two friends snickering behind a nearby wall of lockers. “He actually thinks he’s gonna be a ninja,” one said and the other laughed. I was enraged, humiliated, and, eventually, humbled. The jerkwad was right. I would never really be a ninja.
Dreams don’t die, though, they just lie dormant, like herpes. I’ll admit, when I moved to Japan, I secretly hoped my town was home to some kind of underground ninja base and I’d be hired to teach the ninjas English. In return, they’d teach me how to throw shuriken and disappear in a puff of smoke. Alas, had my boyhood dream been to become a squid fisherman, I’d have been in the right place. A ninja? Not so much.
Then last fall, my ninja dreams finally came true. Sort of. Ayako and I went back to Japan, primarily to visit her family in Kobe. While there, we took an trip to nearby Mie Prefecture, home of Ise Grand Shrine, the holiest shrine in Shinto, and, much more importantly, the famous towns of Koga and Iga. I was very excited. Koga and Iga, you see, are ninja villages.
During Japan’s medieval period (roughly 1300-1600), the ninja clans of Koga and Iga served as highly trained spies and assassins for the local feudal lords. They infiltrated castles and manor houses to deliver secret messages and bloody death. They wore blue, not black, to better blend into the night. They ate only raw food so they would have no cooked-food smell about them. They farmed by day, ninja-ed by night. And their houses contained elaborate trapdoors and secret tunnels allowing easy escape should the fight find them.
Iga, or Ueno as it’s known these days, has one such house, dating from the 18th Century and sitting on the grounds of Ueno Castle. It’s a little boy’s wonderland–filled with trap doors, secret rooms, false floors, hidden weapons caches, and cute young female tour guides in tight-fitting ninja costumes (when I die, my heaven will be exactly like that house).
The cute tight-fitting-ninja-costume-wearing young woman ably demonstrated the house’s many wonders. After flipping in and out of a hidden room via a revolving screen, she asked if anyone wanted to try. I eagerly volunteered. I approached the door. The guide had been in and out in a flash. I could do that, I thought. I pushed the screen and slipped into the secret room, slowly, awkwardly, like an old man going through a revolving door in winter.
As I stood there in the dark of the hidden room, smelling the same wood and mold that real, actual ninjas once smelled in that place, I finally realized that had my dreams come true, I would have made a really lousy ninja.
I didn’t want to be a ninja anymore. I just wanted to go back in time and find myself in that middle school locker room, angry and alone after hearing my friends mock my dreams. I’d lean down, squeeze my young self’s shoulders, and say, “hey, mini-Austin, cheer up. You’ll never grow up to be a ninja, but someday, you’ll get to go to an actual ninja village in Japan.”
It’s not what I dreamed about, but it’s enough.